Theory and practice: Bridging the academy-practitioner gap

John Strange
John Strange

John Strange

By most measures, there is a chasm between the “academy” – the university where researchers and professors pursue, study and teach their theories – and the field, where professionals get the work done.

Scholars and practitioners each have their own ways of working and communicating, and “each finds the other’s laughably absurd,” Stan Dicks, director of the technical communication masters program at N.C. State University, wrote in a 2002 book chapter.

Scholars in all disciplines worry about this gap, because, after all, their trade is in “creating knowledge,” and knowledge is made to be shared.

Just like the old line about the tree falling in the woods soundlessly because no one heard it fall, if the scholar’s research and knowledge stay only in the office, or only in a journal read solely by academics, is knowledge really created?

Without professionals bringing theory into practice, scholars may as well be navel-gazing.

Practitioners, on the other hand, don’t usually care about theory, or so goes conventional wisdom.

In the nonprofit sector, professionals are too busy managing their organizations, putting out the endless “fires,” trying to stamp down the heartburn caused by budget and fundraising crises, board member spats, problem employees, rising health insurance rates, substandard equipment.

There is absolutely no time for theory, let alone for thumbing through densely-written journals. There’s too much work in just getting the work done.

But a lot of practical advice and insight can be mined from the academy. Theories describe in large part how work is done, and how it can be done more efficiently and effectively.

Often a scholar’s work deals with practical problem-solving.

In studying nonprofits, for example, researchers and professors examine how a board can best govern an organization, and how an executive director can best work with a board; the best practices in managing donors and members; and how to manage an organization according to performance and results.

Professionals need someone to locate, interpret and condense some of the best work of the academy into practical, accessible and consumable knowledge.

That’s where we come in.

The recent merging between the Philanthropy Journal and the Institute for Nonprofit Research, Education and Engagement at N.C. State University allows us to tap into the resources of the academy and bring them to practitioners.

This column, to be published periodically, will look at newly published research in the nonprofit and philanthropy fields, as well as foundational articles in the public administration and nonprofit literature, so that readers can access academic knowledge and insight for their daily work.

On a personal introductory note, I am a first-year doctoral student in public administration at N.C. State.

I came to the university after a 20-year career in nonprofit communications, and received my master’s in technical communication at N.C. State in May 2009.

If you have any questions or issues that you’d like us to address from the study of nonprofits and philanthropy, write me at

John Strange is a doctoral student in public administration at N.C. State University, a research associate with the university’s Institute for Nonprofits and a 20-year veteran of the nonprofit communications field. PJ is a program of the Institute for Nonprofits.

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